Congress should back White House plan to use tolls to fix infrastructure

Congress should back White House plan to use tolls to fix infrastructure
© Greg Nash

Tolls or potholes? In his infrastructure plan, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump considered withdrawing Kavanaugh nomination over beer comments, being 'too apologetic': Meadows book Judge halts Biden vaccine mandate for federal contractors nationwide Democrats offer bill to raise debt ceiling, avoid filibuster MORE asks for support in lifting federal restrictions prohibiting interstate highway tolls. This would give states the option of imposing tolls and using the new revenues to fix their failing roads.

While states would be making their own decisions, charging tolls could generate considerable funding. In 2015, tolls accounted for a mere 6 percent of America’s $235 billion highway revenues. Increasing the use of tolls, even if only to 50 percent of existing revenues, would mean more than $100 billion in new funds.

Congress might want to consider backing the administration’s proposal, as the findings of recent transportation studies have revealed that the people’s objections to tolls are temporary for the most part. Researchers found that once tolls were implemented, the public eventually came around and approved of them.

It has been well documented in Europe that public acceptance of road pricing often improves drastically once the tolls are in place. Central London imposed its famous congestion charge scheme in 2003. The share of Londoners opposed to the charge fell from 41 percent the month before the introduction to 27 percent the month after. Similar shifts in attitudes were also found in cities in Norway, Sweden and Italy.

One might think that people have come around to the policy because the tolls turned out better than they thought. But that’s not necessarily the case. In London, for example, more than 70 percent of respondents surveyed before and after the toll introduction thought the plan would be, or had been, effective. People merely changed their attitudes toward the same, good idea.

Research has shown that this post-implementation shift in public acceptance can be explained by the notion of cognitive dissonance, famously developed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. According to the theory, people suffer from a psychological burden when their behavior (driving on toll roads) and their attitudes (objecting to tolls) are inconsistent. Reducing this discomfort requires the modification of one of the two, and a change of heart often proves easier. In this regard, we are no different from Aesop’s fox who soured on the grapes he couldn’t reach.

More important, changed attitudes are more persistent than one might think. In January 2006, Stockholm implemented a seven-month experiment in which people had to pay a congestion charge before making the policy permanent in late 2007. At the beginning of the trial period, public acceptance of the charge jumped from 34 percent to 53 percent. Moreover, between the end of the trial and the toll reintroduction, public support continued to grow, reaching 65 percent in December 2007.

The moral of the story is not that public opinion doesn’t matter in policymaking. It does. But rather, you may find yourself coming around to an ostensibly unpopular policy if it’s economically sound. Economists generally agree and have been arguing for years that user fees, such as tolls, are an efficient way to fund infrastructure investment. When roads are not paid for by those who use them, “negative externalities” will be inevitable. This means too many vehicles, too few roads, and too little maintenance or repair.

Drivers paying for roads is also common practice around the world. In many of the largest economies, such as China, Japan, France and India, the majority of the motorways have tolls. Alternatively, charges based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are in place for trucks in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic. In the United States, a pilot VMT program also exists in Oregon, an example of an innovative funding method praised by the White House in its recent economic report.

Of course, it’s convenient for politicians in the United States to reject road pricing by saying the people won’t like them. But those politicians seem to have forgotten that such a do-nothing philosophy is exactly what brought America’s infrastructure to its current, failing state. Wise politicians don’t simply follow mercurial public attitudes. They lead with their visions, and they help shape public opinion.

The White House infrastructure plan has opened the door to fixing our roads with tolls. Policymakers at both federal and state levels should embrace it now more than ever.

Weifeng Zhong is a research fellow in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.